In today’s food world, convenience is king.
The easier it is to buy, prep, cook and eat, the more likely 21st century consumers — particularly the youngest ones — will choose it. And if you can combine convenience with freshness, nutrition and taste, you can pretty much guarantee those products will fly off the shelves.
Appealing to all of those consumer wants simultaneously has led to some interesting innovations in recent years, and at or at least near the top of the list is the invention of the produce butcher.
You heard that right: a butcher who doesn’t get anywhere near the meat case. Available at a handful of leading grocery retailers, produce butchers work on-site in produce departments to chop, core, peel, dice, slice, julienne and do whatever else shoppers want done to their fresh fruits and veggies.
While the produce butcher butchers, consumers can proceed with their shopping and come back to pick it up. Or they can stick around for a one-of-a-kind instore experience, one in which they’re likely to learn a thing or two about preparation and possibly cooking.
For a price (or, some cases, free of charge) shoppers can get their pineapples, mangoes and other labor-intensive fruits in ready-to-eat chunks, or their onions, garlic and other veggies ready for the pan or pot.
And for retailers, produce butchers represent a way to bring theater and new experiences to the perimeter — while also possibly tapping into a new source of revenue.
Saving time, maximizing flavor
Thirteen of Encino, California-based retailer Gelson’s stores have what John Savidan, the company’s senior director of produce and floral, calls “fresh butcher programs.” Those stores have large kiosks in the produce department staffed with produce butchers. But all of Gelson’s stores, he says, have in-house cut-fruit programs.
Gelson’s was one of the first retailers in Southern California to have its cut-fruit kiosks in actual produce departments, Savidan says — even before the term “produce butcher” entered the lexicon.
“We were ahead of our time back then, and really just offered it as an extension of our great customer service,” he says. “It wasn’t until further down the road that we figured out that we have been doing some variations of this long before others were and not getting the credit for it.”
Gelson’s produce butchers will cut, slice, dice, noodle, spiral — basically whatever the customer asks them to do, Savidan says.
“Our customers love it,” he says. “They like the fact that they can customize items to their needs, especially on items that are time-consuming. We also get a lot of great comments about cutting fruit that’s at its maximum flavor, which customers love.”
Not just anyone, Savidan says, can be a produce butcher at Gelson’s. “Our produce butchers know about quality and superior customer service,” he says. “They go out of their way to find the best eating seasonal items that have customers coming back for more.”
In the U.S., the first self-styled produce butchers started showing up circa 2010 at New York-based food emporium Eataly, which has since expanded to other cities.
Nearly a decade later, they’re still going strong. Eataly’s butchers (the chain’s official name for them is “vegetable butchers”) are not only the originals but an exception to the general rule: namely, they clean and cut produce for free. And they’re more than happy to answer any questions customers might have about prep or cooking.
“I’m just like a bartender,” Jennifer Rubell, the original “head butcher” at Eataly told today.com. “But the advice customers seek from me is about what to do with vegetables, and to introduce them to unfamiliar ones like cardoons and celery root.”
Rubell has an interesting take on the job of a produce butcher. With the average produce department featuring hundreds if not thousands of SKUs, it can be intimidating to figure out what to buy for a particular purpose; and, once it’s purchased, to figure out the best form in which to eat or cook it.
With that in mind, Eataly’s produce butchers “help make the world of vegetables less intimidating,” Rubell says.
Another early leader in the produce butcher movement was Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods’ announcement that is was adding produce butchers made such a splash it warranted a mock You Tube video on “Ellen.”
In the spot, a Whole Foods produce butcher cuts a customer’s watermelon for her, then carries her to her car, drives her home, puts a bib on her, feeds her chunks of watermelon and tucks her into bed for a nap. It ends with the tagline, “Cut your own damn fruit.”
Whole Foods, while not free like Eataly, is definitely at the cheap end, charging just $1 per pound or per individually sliced item. And instore signage pairs the name of the particular cut with an illustration of what it looks like.
Whole Foods’ produce butchers, like Eataly’s, do more than just chop. They also show shoppers how to make some easy dinners with those chopped vegetables and fruits and let them try them when they’re done.
Emily Hankey, the produce butcher at the fruit and vegetable prep station in the Whole Foods store in New York City’s Bryant Park, learned her knife skills at the French Culinary Institute and frequently posts updates on the butchering art on the Whole Foods website.
“Whenever someone hears that I’m a produce butcher, they either respond by saying how amazing that is or they start to giggle because they think it’s silly,” she says. “I get it — typically a butcher is behind the meat counter, and not everyone needs help slicing and dicing their produce for dinner. But the reality is that I don’t just prep fruits and veggies for people, I also give lots of tips on how to make plants the star of their meal rather than just a side dish.”
If a shopper approaches Hankey with a banana flower in her hand and a confused look on her face, Hankey will know not only how to cut or otherwise prep it, but also how to cook it.
“I love that I’m helping them feel more confident in the kitchen — and I love it even more when they come back the next week and tell me how their recipe turned out.”
Chopped, peeled, diced, sliced, etc. — for free
A sign in the produce department at Toronto-based Pusateri’s lures customers in with the promise: “Vegetable Butcher: We Clean, Peel, Chop and Dice Your Vegetables Free of Charge.”
John Mastroianni, Pusateri’s vice president of operations, told the Toronto Star that the company’s produce butcher program is an extension of its open kitchen concept.
“I said, ‘Why do we hide our vegetable and food cutters in the back where no one gets to see what they do?’” he says. “It’s a great way of being interactive or offering suggestions or recipes. Some people have never used an artichoke and don’t know how. This is an opportunity for people to experience new fruits and vegetables.”